China is a very traditional country and while Mao proclaimed more than 60 years ago that “Women hold up half the sky,” women are expected to play the more traditional role of having babies, taking care of the man, and staying away from boys until they find “Mr. Right.”
Accordingly, Chinese society puts a lot of pressure on girls to be the “good girls.” It’s okay for men to stray from marriage, in fact, prestigious at times, but not acceptable for a woman. It’s also okay for a man to have many sex partners before marriage but most guys in China still want to marry a virgin.
So in keeping with these traditions you would think that Chinese women are very modest. But some recent experiences have made me question their modesty, and left me more than a little confused at what is okay, and what is not, in Chinese culture. The evidence:
Chinese women don’t use tampons. They’ve heard of them, but even at the big stores, like Walmart, they are impossible to find. Why is that? I’ve asked a few students and they say they’ve heard of tampons, but also heard they were really dangerous. (Exaggerated claims of Toxic Shock Syndrome perhaps?) They also said that they would never, EVER, put something up that part of their body. That it was “gross.”
Yet they tell everyone about their period. I’ve had countless students tell me their friends aren’t coming to class because of their period. They don’t use euphemisms, or even act shy. They tell boys they have their period and walk around stores openly carrying packs of maxi pads in clear sight of everyone. (Not hiding them in a basket under the milk and eggs like many western young women.) In Chinese culture having your period is seen as a time to take it easy. In the west we can’t use it as an excuse for missing class or a meeting, but in China it is common. Also, in the west if you tell boys, especially college aged boys, they will giggle, make PMS jokes and basically act like douches. In China guys just accept it and shrug it off. They don’t even act embarrassed.
They wear the teeny tiniest shorts, yet rarely show cleavage. In China you can’t judge a persons personality based on their clothes as easily as you can in the west. If a girl wears tiny, tiny shorts, or a tiny, tight skirt that is shorter than her shirt, she’s not showing off. In fact, many of my college students who have never kissed a boy wear tiny shorts or skip the pants altogether and wear just leggings. At the same time they might match their tiny tight skirts with a big billowing shirt, or a t-shirt with a high collar. Guys will wear V-necks, but girls rarely do. Also, shirts tend not to be very tight here, just more of a normal/casual fit.
They shower naked in front of others. I went swimming at a public pool several times this summer, and after swimming the locker room was filled with dozens of people showering completely naked. Old ladies, little kids, young and middle aged women were walking around the locker room in front of strangers with no sense of shame or modesty. In fact I was the only one who showered in my bathing suit and tried to change under my towel. (I know Americans are weird with our shower room modesty, but I’m not talking about American culture here.) There was of course no guys, and a female guard at the entrance of the locker room to make sure no guys would enter, but they had not a wiff of embarrassment of their naked bodies.
But at the gynecologist it’s another story. I recently went to the *ahem* lady doctor. It was a very clean, very high quality facility but definitely had chinese characteristics. All the doctors, nurses and helpers were women. In fact, in the gynecological area men were not allowed. There were bilingual signs all over “No men!!!” and yellow tape on the floors that said “Semi-restricted area! No men!” (The only guys I saw were husbands in the maternity ward, and 2 guys in the pharmacy area.)
So I thought the locker room mentality of letting it all hang out would reign here. But no. There was still surprising modesty. Instead of changing into a gown, you keep your clothes on and just take one leg out of your pants and underpants. Then you put your legs in the stir-ups. You know what happens when you do that? All your shit falls out of your pocket of the one leg you still have on! And not just me. I was in an area with a curtained off beds and heard another lady enter. Within the first minute I heard her keys falls out of her pocket too. It was the weirdest thing to me, and seemed more of a hindrance than anything (the doctor has to keep pushing the pant leg out of the way) but maybe it was to protect a shred of modesty? Like, you still technically have one leg on so therefore you can tell everyone you were dressed?!
I have figured out many things in my time in culture, but this chinese sense of modesty, and what is acceptable and what is not for women, still baffles me. And baffles me more as time goes on. It’s like that old adage. “The more you know, the less you know.”